Catching Lightning in a Photo, Over and Over Again

Storm chaser Christophe Suarez gives us the inside scoop on riding for lightning in Europe.
Lightning strikes Lake Geneva in Switzerland during a storm in this photo captured by renowned storm photographer Christophe Suarez.
From the cloud to the ground © Christophe Suarez
By Evan David

He may not be able to move at 20 miles per second, but with the help of his tricked out camera equipment, Christophe Suarez can chase down lightning like few others. The Switzerland-based storm and nature photographer compiled a gallery of his favorite lightning shots for us – and told us a little bit about how he captured them.

Lightning strikes in the Bourgnone, France, in a photograph captured by storm photographer Christophe Suarez.
Wine and rain in Bourgnone © Christophe Suarez

Storm and lightning photography has been a near life-long pursuit for the photographer. "Since a very young age, I've been fascinated by lightning. Each lightning strike is special – in the middle of the night, it brings to light a darkened landscape."

The last summer storm over Geneva, Switzerland, captured by photographer Christophe Suarez.
The last storm of summer © Christophe Suarez

While the results are spectacular, it presents challenges that normal photography does not – like the fact that you have no idea what your subject will look like, because, well, it doesn't appear until it's time to snap the shot. Says Suarez: "Since the position and the shape of lightning is unpredictable, I like to set a frame and let the nature create a composition."

A typical Swiss Alps summer thunderstorm captured by local photographer Christophe Suarez.
Typical evening thunderstorm in the Alps © Christophe Suarez

"The rules of compositions are similar to those for landscape photography," continues the photographer. "But the emergence of digital photography helps to push the limits of the photographer, and show weather phenomena such as we never would have imagined."

Lightning strikes the surface of Lake Geneva, Switzerland in a shot by photographer Christophe Suarez.
Not smoke on the water but lightning © Christophe Suarez

While the images are dramatic, Suarez is rarely in danger, staying near the storm rather than directly in it. "I prefer not to be in the core of the storm, but rather slightly to the side, in order to see the show without being doused by precipitation!"

Storm spouts form over Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in a photograph by Christophe Suarez.
Twin spouts over Lake Geneva © Christophe Suarez

The challenging situation requires perfect knowledge of his camera gear. "I know my equipment perfectly, so I don't need to think about the adjustments. It removes some stress during shooting!"

The sea in Marseille, Frnace, is struck by lightning in a photograph captured by Christophe Suarez.
Marseille lights up with a strike © Christophe Suarez

"Some European storm-chasers would like to imitate their american counterparts, and use big cars with stickers everywhere. But overall, here, in Europe, it is not similar," says Suarez.

"On one hand, the nature of our storms is a bit different. In spite of more violent storms the last few years, our storms are not equivalent to the violence of the American ones. Also, the road infrastructures are different and the traffic is very dense here. When you drive through small villages in Europe, I recommend leaving the huge 4x4 at home and drive a compact car!"

Summer storms in the skies over the French Alps, photographed by Christophe Suarez.
From the ground to the cloud © Christophe Suarez
A huge electrical storm striking Geneva, Switzerland, photographed by Christophe Suarez.
Big storm over Geneva © Christophe Suarez

Timing is the most difficult part of the entire endeavour – timing both the lightning strikes, and the storms. "My equipment is always ready and I sometimes leave at the last minute, but I prefer to prepare several days in advance. One week before, I perceive an opportunity on the weather models. A few days later, I have a good idea of the target. One day before, I choose the target. Just before my departure, one last quick glance on the weather models will confirm the choice. During the chase, in the field, I trust more on what I see and the weather radars than the models." But once he's there, he's still got to wait for lightning to strike!

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